Ignoble reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize

Not everyone is pleased Liu Xiaobo is this year's laureate

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was obviously not going to go down well with Beijing. It is intriguing to note, however, the reaction in China itself and that in the neighbouring region.

Clifford Coonan reports in today's Independent that "many Chinese see it as yet another attack on China, embodying what they see as sour grapes in the West about China's startling economic rise and a lack of understanding of how the country works." He also points to criticism from Wei Jingsheng, a pro-democracy activist imprisoned for two decades and now in exile in the US. "In my observation, the Nobel Peace Prize is going to Liu because he is different from the majority of people in opposition. He made more gestures of cooperation with the government and made more criticism of other resisters who suffered," Wei told the AFP news agency.

About the strongest local criticism of the award so far has come from Singapore, from one of the city-state's most prominent former diplomats, currently Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani. I'm indebted to Asia Sentinel for picking up the following remarks he made at a dinner last Friday:

"We all respect the Nobel Peace Prize. Most winners deserve the prizes they get. Nobel Prizes by and large reflect the western world view. The winners in Asia are never leaders who brought great change. The man that did more good than anyone was Deng Xiaoping. When he came to power 800 million people were living on less than one dollar a day. Thirty years later on after the results of his reforms, 200 million lived on less than one dollar a day. Six hundred million people were lifted out of poverty.

Will he ever get a Nobel Peace Prize? Never. Because of the western world view that the prize must be given to dissidents in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyii (although she deserves it). The former leader of Korea. What has Obama brought? Where is the peace in Iraq? In Afghanistan? How can you give him a Nobel Peace Prize? He is a wonderful guy but he has achieved nothing. Deng Xiaoping saved 600 million people and he will never get a Nobel Peace Prize. That's why it is important to step outside the western world view."

Mahbubani conveniently omits to mention the matter of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. If it were possible to leave that aside, then a strong case for Deng's period of office could be made. But it isn't, which makes the suggestion grotesque and gratuitously offensive. Also on Asia Sentinel, the International Herald Tribune columnist and former Far Eastern Economic Review editor, Philip Bowring, puts Mahbubani smartly right, calling his comments about dissidents "just the sort of half-truth that one expects from Singapore apologists for authoritarian regimes similar to their own. It also reflects Singapore's attempts to appear ultra-Asian while aligning its economic and strategic interests with the west."

However, even if he represents an extreme end of the spectrum, Mahbubani will not be alone in his view of how this year's Nobel Peace Laureate was chosen. President Obama and representatives of EU countries, including Britain and France, have welcomed the award, as have the governments of New Zealand and Australia - which as Asia-Pacific countries have a much more direct interest in good relations with China.

But from the leaders of the ten nation ASEAN bloc bordering China, I can find no evidence of congratulations to Liu - nor even any statement in which he is named. Just silence.

An example of a rather ignoble pragmatism? Tacit sympathy with those "Asian Values" of which Mahbubani is just one exponent (Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir or Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee being two others)? Perhaps. Or maybe with their own less-than-perfect human rights records, they prefer not to laud those who might well have ended up in jail in their countries too.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.